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The Dhaka Dungeons


The results from the recently held local elections in Bangladesh might be the harbinger of things to come in the next general elections, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: August 25, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Bangladesh | Awami League | Sheikh Hasina | 1971 War of Liberation | Jamaat-e-Islami |

In June this year, something happened in neighbouring Bangladesh that did not even register a blip on the world media radar. Had the world been watching at the right place, they could not possibly have missed this political earthquake. But their priorities lied somewhere else.

Gopalganj and Gazipur are the names of two constituencies that any self-respecting Bangladeshi political analyst cannot afford not to know. After all, since Bangladesh’s creation in 1971, these two constituencies have proved to be the unshakable pillars of Awami League support base. So much so that even in the 2001 Parliamentary Elections, where Awami League was all but swept off by the voters, and Sheikh Hasina lost the seat of Rangpur; Gopalgunj and Gazipur stuck solidly with Awami League. Not anymore. In the urban local bodies polls this year, always an unmistakable barometer to gauge the urban political mood in the country, Awami League lost Gazipur, and how.

In the same elections, the party supported candidates were also routed in Barisal, Khulna, Rajsahi and Sylhet. Not only did the ruling disposition lose the Mayor posts, it also lost seats in the committees. If anything, it is indicative of what might be in the offing for Awami League in the general elections slated for late December or early January next year. The Article 123 of the Bangladesh constitution describes that, it is mandatory that general elections should be held within ninety days of the dissolution of the national assembly. Thus the outward limit for the elections will be 24th January at the most.

There are several factors that are going to weigh in the elections. The most important will be the simmering tension that is prevailing following the verdicts awarded by the so-called International Crimes Tribunal. Since February this year, the Tribunal, which is basically a fancifully named domestic court constituted for punishing crimes committed in 1971 War of Liberation, has sentenced five prominent Jamaat leaders to death and life sentence for murders, massacres, rapes and religious persecutions. The trial was pressurized by a group of secular, urban pro-regime protestors who gathered at the Shahbagh More in Dhaka demanding noting but death penalties for all the accused, evidence or no evidence, reflecting the emotion and agony of a generation that suffered in the war. The government acted swiftly and it is expected that by the end of this year, a slew of other leaders, including the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Motiur Rahman Nizami, will join those who are waiting to be executed.

And while they were at it, judges close to the ruling disposition also banned Jammat from contesting the elections citing certain clauses in their party program.

Both these events will have far reaching consequences on the elections. To start with, although the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) lose its key ally, Jamaat, in the elections, it will not affect it out rightly as voters who planned to vote for Jamaat, will now directly vote for BNP. In fact, the cadres will see this as an opportunity to redeem themselves and will participate with death-like zeal.

As far as upwardly mobile urban elites are concerned, Awami League can hope to get their votes considering it delivered on its promise over War Tribunal, but that’s that. The other voting groups look massively upset.

To start with, there is simmering anger among textile industry workers due to abysmal working conditions and low wages. There have been violent protests all through Hasina’s tenure and it is almost certain that the massive number of votes will go to opposition BNP. Hasina might announce a wage hike later this year but the factory owners, most of whom double up as thugs, will not let her implement it. The recurring disasters that have killed thousands have only worsened this.

Till now, Sheikh Hasina has enjoyed the support of media which solidly stands with her. That’s also because most of the outlets are owned by members of her party. The opposition owned media has been stifled during her tenure, and that will definitely be one of the concerns when the voters come out to vote.

“Press freedom, journalistic integrity and freedom of conscience lie at the very roots of a thriving and healthy democracy. These repressive actions are symptoms of the absence of democratic values amongst the power elite and its dependants in Bangladesh. What compounds the inhumanity is the active ignorance, disinterest and misrepresentation of the international press and the collusion of the local press with the state in the cover up,” says Mahin Khan, a London based Bangladeshi political analyst.      

And then, one can never ignore the India factor. In fact, many suggest that Khaleda Zia is all set to make India the biggest electoral issue. And here too, Hasina appears to be on the sticky wicket. During the recently concluded visit to India by Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, it was evident that Hasina was losing patience. Her inability to persuade India to come on terms with the Teesta Waters sharing agreement and the Land Boundary Agreement did not go unnoticed even in the government friendly media in Bangladesh. In fact the foreign minister declared pleadingly that “If the Bill does not go through and the Teesta Waters sharing deal are not signed they will become important issues in the run-up to the Parliamentary Elections in my country”.

Considering UPA II does not want to start another controversy in the run-up to elections, things are not going to speed up there. All these make only one person happy. The wily begum in the dark goggles has betrayed a smirk.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017